This weekend, UFC 261 marks the return of the promotion in front of a live audience, as the pay-per-view will be broadcast from Jacksonville, Florida with an arena at full capacity of 15,000 fans. Regardless of some of the criticism of the decision to run a full-fledged event, tickets for the pay-per-view card sold out in minutes, providing proof that despite any potential health risks, there’s undoubtedly demand for the card that features three championship bouts.
In the first of the title contests, Valentina Shevchenko puts her Flyweight belt on the line against former Straweight champion, Jessica Andrade. Aside from the championship experience that both of these athletes bring to the table, this bout has much more depth to it than just what’s on paper ahead of the opening bell. Most sports books put Shevchenko as the 4-to-1 favorite, implying that she will dominate the competition in the octagon. Don’t get me wrong, Shevchenko has put together a resume that will put her among the best female fighters of all-time when she decides to hang up the gloves, and some of her dominance almost seems to be overlooked on occasion, only because Amanda Nunes is in the midst of a legendary run that made an argument for her to be considered the top female fighter in the history of the sport. To put it in perspective, Valentina, with a record of 20-3, has only been defeated twice in the past decade. Both of those decision losses were to Nunes in 2016 and 2017 respectively with the latter being a razor-close split decision on the score cards. The only other loss was a doctor stoppage early in her career. No opponent has been able to KO or submit her. The bottom line is, only the best female fighter in the sport today was able to defeat Shevchenko in the past ten years.
Not surprisingly, the 125 LBS champion is very well-rounded with no major flaws in her skills. Her extensive striking background in kickboxing and Muy Thai give her the ability to land punches and the movement to bring top notch defense to the octagon. As far as grappling, her judo skills have allowed her to remain a threat toward opponents in any aspect of the fight. Among her twenty victories, she has almost an equality amount of wins with strikes, submissions, and decisions on the cards, which proves that she has the skills and the cardio to win in any fashion.
Still, 4-to-1 odds might be more of a way for the sports books to generate some wagers on the contest than anything else.
With a record of 21-8, Andrade might seem like an average competitor on paper, but she proved to always be dangerous throughout her career. Nothing personified that more than her shocking win over Rose Namajunas to claim the Strawweight belt in 2019 after she slammed “Thug” Rose on her head for the knockout. Essentially, Andrade isn’t as dominate as some of her peers in the organization, but she’s always competitive and in the conversation because similar to Valentina, she brings an equality amount of striking, submission, and decision wins in the octagon so there’s not one particular weakness that Shevchenko could look to exploit to get the advantage in the contest.
That said, instead of an aspect being completely one-sided, I would guess that Valentina will simply outclass Andrade throughout the bout to get a unanimous decision. Andrade is gritty and will remain competitive, but I think Shevchenko will use her stellar striking skills to win on points for the five rounds.
Speaking of well-rounded athletes and bouts on the card that will be very competitive, Zhang Weili defends her 125 LBS title against former champion, the previously mentioned Rose Namajunas, who had her stint as champion after her surprising defeat of the incredibly talented Joanna Jędrzejczyk in 2017. As mentioned, Andrade KO’ed thug Rose with a slam a few years later, but “Thug” Rose, very similar to Andrade is always in the championship conversation, even if she has defeats on her record.
Zhang, who had arguably the greatest fight in women’s MMA history against Joanna for the belt just over a year ago, winning a split decision, brings a lot of momentum into this bout. The Chinese kick boxer lost in her pro MMA debut in 2013, but has racked up 20 consecutive wins without a defeat in the past seven and a half years. A practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Weili is well-rounded with the ability to punch as well as grapple, a common theme among the champions on this pay-per-view.
After a pair of wins against Joanna, Namajunas dropped the Strawweight title to Andrade, but avenged that loss in her last fight in July of 2020. The record of 9-4 represents the level of competition Namajunas has competed against rather than a subpar skill set. The odds for this contest have Zhang at a 1.5 favorite, which is probably the most realistic odds for the title bouts because “Thug” Rose could definitely find a way to land a KO punch against Zhang, particularly in the early rounds. That said, I have to pick Weili to retain the title, mostly because she continues to be tremendously solid in the octagon without any obvious flaws that would allow an opponent to formula an effective strategy. One of the questions that might be a determining factor for the contest could be,will Namajunas have any ring rust inside the octagon since she’s had nearly a year between each of her last four UFC fights?
A side note, Namajunas made news recently for some controversial comments she made about communism in association with Zhang because the champion is from China. If someone disagrees with the Chinese government, it’s certainly their right to express their opinion, the same way there are critics of capitalism in the United States, but to even attempt to equate Zhang Weili as a fighter to the grievances toward the Chinese government simply because Zhang is a native of the country is absolute nonsense. Did anyone criticize Namajunas’ career based on the US tax plan?
In the main event, it’s a grudge rematch of Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal for the Welterweight championship.Usman, who brings a 17-fight win streak into the octagon, beat Masvidal via unanimous decision when the challenger was a last-minute replacement for Gilbert Burns, who tested positive for COVID and was replaced on the card at UFC 251. Just two months ago, Usman beat Burns via TKO, as he outclassed him in nearly every aspect of the fight, despite a solid effort from Burns in the octagon.
Masvidal has a chance to properly prepare for the 170 LBS kingpin, but I’m not sure that will ultimately make a difference in the result.
The 36-year-old journeyman propelled to stardom when he KO’ed Ben Askren with a highlight reel flying knee in just five seconds in 2019. Since that time, Masvidal was smart enough to take that spotlight and talk his way into some big money fights, including the BMF belt later that year in a main event against Nate Diaz, with The Rock in attendance to present him the title. Masvidal as the BMF titleholder is a good gimmick because it sells his fights to the general public, even if his skills aren’t necessarily on par with the legitimate champions in the organization. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame him at all for taking the opportunity to make as much money as possible, that’s capitalism, but the reality is that while he has a puncher’s chance, most of Masvidal’s rise in popularity the past few years has been more sizzle than substance.
The sports books put Usman at nearly a 4-to-1 favorite, but similar to the Flyweight title fight, I would suggest that those odds are more to try to generate some betting action on Masvidal. That being said, I would pick Usman to win again in the same fashion that he did in the original bout, a unanimous decision win on the score cards.
What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.
Until next week
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